On Monday, The Washington Post broke the news that the United States will ease some oil sanctions against Venezuela on the condition that the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro ensures freer and internationally monitored elections in 2024. The official signing of the agreements between Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition was scheduled for Tuesday at a meeting in Barbados. Considering the United States does not recognize the Maduro government as the country’s legitimate representative, the diplomatic deal is a significant policy shift, and in the U.S. it could carry major repercussions for both immigration policy and the 2024 presidential election.
Until this deal, Biden’s Venezuela policy left much to be desired. Initially, his administration continued the unproductive hard-line stance of the Trump administration. Then, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration cynically sought Venezuelan oil to keep gas prices lower.
But this week’s agreement could hardly be described as punitive or cynical. The Biden administration knows that deal-making with Maduro is politically dangerous in an election cycle, and some in the Venezuelan opposition will never trust Maduro. Already Republicans are pouncing on the agreement, with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., proclaiming that “America should never beg for oil from socialist dictators or terrorists.”
But it seems Biden and his team understand that the hard lines of the Trump era — which at one point saw Trump asking his staff why the U.S. couldn’t just invade Venezuela — never led to real tangible solutions. An opposition uprising in 2019 failed, and sanctions have failed to force Maduro from power. Meanwhile, more than 7.7 million have left the country, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
And for a Democratic administration seeking its second term, the risks are not without potential rewards. “Venezuelans have seen the fastest population growth among U.S. Latinos,” according to the Pew Research Center. “From 2010 to 2022, the Venezuelan-origin population in the U.S. increased by 236% to 815,000,” Pew said.
Almost 50% of Venezuelans reside in Florida, and even though Cuban and Puerto Rican voters still outnumber them, Venezuelans have been the state’s fastest-growing Latino voter subgroup for years.
While there is little polling about Venezuelan voters in the U.S., there is some evidence that a more moderate and diplomatic approach toward Maduro would win over Trump supporters in places like Florida, which Democrats still believe can be theirs again. A 2021 Atlantic Council poll of Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters expressed that even though 90% of respondents viewed Maduro unfavorably, “nearly 7 in 10 respondents support opening new channels for humanitarian assistance,” and a plurality agreed the U.S. should “remove current sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry if the Maduro government agrees to hold free and fair elections.”
Even though 63% of respondents voted for Trump in 2020, “this constituency is willing to consider U.S. policies that promote humanitarian efforts in Venezuela and generate a pathway to democracy by adjusting sanctions,” the Atlantic Council said. That is exactly what the Biden administration is doing.
Admittedly, it’s understandable to be a bit cynical about the timing of the deal: it comes two weeks after the U.S. said it would be resuming deportation flights to Venezuela with the agreement of the Venezuelan government. But immigration more broadly has been an important issue for Venezuelans living in the U.S. “Immigration is a topic that unites us despite any partisan sympathy,” Maria Antonieta Díaz, of the Venezuelan American Alliance, told NBC News in 2021. “We are all impacted by the topic of immigration.” And when combined with a policy that treats Venezuela through any lens of legitimacy, it could also provide the Biden re-election campaign with an unexpected boost.
Especially important is the issue of legal protections to Venezuelan migrants. Last month, the Biden administration extended temporary protected status to some 200,000 Venezuelans who entered the country without legal documentation. While that decision may have been influenced by New York City Democrats wanting to lessen these migrants’ dependence on the city’s services, these decisions can have positive consequences electorally.
A 2021 poll commissioned by the Venezuelan American Alliance indicated that 49% of Venezuelan Americans would not support Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., “if they oppose granting permanent legal status to Venezuelan Americans who currently have temporary protected status, or TPS,” the alliance said. Though Rubio and Scott are vocal critics of Maduro, many Venezuelans in the U.S. want to move beyond that one note.
As little as five years ago, Venezuelan voters identified with the Democratic Party. Tough talk from Trump appealed to this voting bloc, but there is enough out there to suggest that this growing and influential group can be swayed in the other direction. Addressing issues related to their home country still matter to an electorate that is mostly first- or second-generation immigrant. It could be a win-win Democrats are seeking.
“The most effective way to address our border is to tackle the root causes of migration and expand legal pathways,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a Tuesday statement. “The announcement to begin the lifting of these sanctions is an important step in the right direction, and I encourage further measures to reverse Trump’s broad-based economic sanctions?to protect the lives and dignity of Venezuelans.”
The trick for the Biden administration and the Biden campaign is to differentiate themselves from the extreme policies that Republicans will recycle for their 2024 playbook. If this new agreement results in more support for a Biden re-election bid, leads to a healthy Venezuelan election and begins to offer some glimmer of hope in a country whose recent history has been complicated to say the least, it will prove an incredible victory for the president and for Venezuelans everywhere.